Why are Asian thinktankers pessimistic about the future?

17 October 2023

In the Think tank state of the sector report 2023, Asian thinktankers were pessimistic about the future. Political challenges appeared to be driving this pessimism, with reports that they are experiencing worsening conditions in their countries.

They expressed their growing concern about rising authoritarianism – with governments suppressing civil society and the media – and about the lack of cooperation between think tanks and governments.

Asian thinktankers also cited attempts to curtail opposition and critical voices, and the challenges arising from governments’ use of policy to restrict civil society and think tanks. Some examples given included threats and attacks against their work: fact-checking activities, attempts to discourage engagement and labelling them as spies.

The presence of such a hostile political climate is leading to challenges in engagement, collaboration and advocacy.

These are worrying trends for think tanks, donors and supporters of freedom.

In this article, I dive deeper into why Asian thinktankers might be so pessimistic, and how we might respond as a sector to these challenges.

Geopolitical context

Thinktankers in this region reported that the political environment in most of their countries is marked by increased polarisation and political instability, the latter of which has been contributed to, in part, by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

While for many Asian countries the Russia–Ukraine war may be geographically distant, the economic impacts are evident: food prices in most countries in this region have increased since the start of the war, with governments implementing protectionist approaches to protect their food security as a result.

In South-East Asia, China’s presence contributes to geopolitical uncertainty, especially following its recently released “standard map”, which claims a significant area of the disputed South China Sea. These developments may have contributed to the general sentiment around the region’s perceived instability, which has indirectly impacted think tanks within their respective countries.

Authoritarianism across Asia

We’re currently seeing growing authoritarianism across the region.

Malaysia has undergone a recent rise in conservative politics, with parties using the rhetoric of race and religion to attract Malay-Muslim majority voters, putting pressure on the government.

In Indonesia, the state is exercising greater control over the internet, where private operators need to register with the government in order to operate, and the president is accused of abuses of power as he claims to spy on political parties.

In India, the rule of law is under question as due court process is not adhered to in one state’s crackdown on crime. And in Sri Lanka, even amidst their worst economic crisis, several bills are being floated that may threaten human rights including an anti-terrorism bill that has provisions to stop civil society activities.

Funding and government control

Given this heightened political environment, thinktankers, especially those within South-East Asia, reported pessimism about their funding context, with only 11% predicting an improvement – a significant change from last year, when only 18% expected a worsening.

The key factor driving this negative assessment is increased government control and political factors, political instability, government pressure on (or rejections of) donors, distrust of civil society organisations and economic issues that negatively affect funding.

An example of this government control can be seen in India, where think tanks and other non-profit organisations are required to be registered under the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA) in order to receive foreign funds, the licenses for which can be cancelled by the government.

In many Asian countries, receiving foreign funds is perceived as being influenced by a foreign – often Western – agenda; therefore, governments have often threatened to regulate this tightly.

Also, there are laws in many Asian countries – including Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Vietnam and China – that require non-profit organisations to register themselves under highly bureaucratic processes. Such scrutiny, of course, restricts think tanks’ ability to be independent in their research and advocacy work.

Staff retention

At the global level, the report indicated that human resources was a key competency for think tanks. This was mostly driven by Asian thinktankers, who mentioned that investing in recruitment, the capacity building of their staff and staff retention was critical.

In a region where talent is highly mobile, it is indeed challenging to retain staff as they often depart for better opportunities in other sectors or even other countries.

To a lesser degree, respondents also cited adaptation to evolving contexts, regulatory challenges, fostering strategic collaborations and strengthening research programmes as important for think tanks.

As multiple countries in Asia face national elections in 2024, think tanks must come together to strategise

Despite the multiple challenges, thinktankers in Asia mostly reported that there has been no change in the difficulties of running a think tank. This finding might be counter-intuitive to the political context being faced within each country.

One possible explanation is that the political environments in Asian countries have always been tough to operate in; in many cases, perhaps this was the reason why the think tanks were set up in the first place.

Nonetheless, if governments are more likely to suppress think tanks than they are to receive their recommendations, how can our public policy research really have meaningful impact?

Given that thinktankers are expecting even more authoritarian trends from the governments across Asia, it’s now even more important for think tanks to engage in learning conversations with each other.

Bringing think tanks together would provide solidarity, achieve greater understanding of the region’s context and, most importantly, strategise towards solutions for how to operate more effectively.

The worrying fact that thinktankers in Asia are increasingly pessimistic is also an opportunity to promote collaboration and engagement among us.

Existing think tank and civil society networks in Asia should connect more frequently with each other, such as the Asia Democracy Network and Southeast Asia Think Tank Network. This would enable networking platforms for think tank leaders to actively engage with each other in the near future, which would be helpful in a restricted-funding environment.

As several Asian countries face national elections in 2024, including Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Pakistan and Taiwan, political conditions there are bound to intensify. Hopefully, think tanks in these countries and in the Asian region, more broadly, will be able to face the challenges of the future through much-needed strategic planning and partner engagements.